Research in Motion Ltd yesterday moved to keep some clear water between itself and rival handheld wireless data systems suppliers, promising new server and device products for the fall that put special emphasis on enterprise management and international markets.
RIM's BlackBerry may still look like the poor relation to glossier products from Palm Inc and the Pocket PC camp, but the addition of secure push technology that enforces enterprise policies on a mobile device from behind the firewall may give it Cinderella status in the eyes of some IS managers.
At the PC Expo exhibition in New York yesterday, RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario, also unveiled the first new additions to its hardware range for more than a year. For those expecting RIM to take Hewlett-Packard and Palm in the competition to produce the next must-have object of IT consumer desire, the devices will be a disappointment, but they nevertheless play to RIM's established strengths as a provider of ergonomic, practical handheld platforms for wireless computing.
For the growing number of RIM's 14,000 enterprise customers who want their wireless reach to extend across both sides of the Atlantic, RIM showed a "world band" version of the established BlackBerry device that will support both the US 1900MHz GSM/GPRS world, and the 900MHz spectrum used in Europe and the Asia Pacific region. This device will also go further than earlier products in supporting voice, having an optional integrated microphone and speaker for those users satisfied by the product's existing cable speaker and microphone add-on.
BlackBerry has yet to emerge as a voice terminal outside of North America, but the implications of yesterday's announcement are that RIM expects its handhelds to double as phones more frequently. The new world band device users will have the option to carry spare batteries for the first time, a necessary extension to the basic BlackBerry profile if power-hungry voice circuit connections are to be supported.
Waiting in the wings with the new world band version of BlackBerry are separate models designed to work with Motorola's iDEN networks in the US, and with CDMA/1xRTT networks - making the BlackBerry a potentially attractive option in the Far East, including China. Once the CDMA and iDEN versions are ready, RIM will be able to claim comprehensive air interface support, encompassing Mobitex, DataTAC, GSM/GPRS, iDEN and CDMA/1xRTT - all without recourse to clumsy add-on modules, although the iDEN version will require BlackBerry to carry an external antenna for the first time.
From the point of view of most enterprise IS managers, the new BlackBerry devices will be of less interest than the enhancements RIM has promised to deliver with the next version of BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), also in the fall. BES already provides a secure, encrypted means of pushing email and some personal information management (PIM) data to BlackBerry. Yesterday RIM revealed plans to extend this capability to data sourced from third-party applications, diluting BES' turnkey system characteristics, and enhancing BlackBerry's claim to be a truly "open" wireless computing platform.
Among the immediate advantages to BES customers of these new approaches will be easier integration of enterprise apps such as Siebel with the wireless world, and the ability to ensure software upgrade, version control and data harmonization over the radio network, without relying on a docking cradle. In theory, this should ensure that mobile staff are constantly refreshed with up-to-date data. Using the same technology, IS managers will also be able to tighten centralized control of mobile devices, deleting sensitive data remotely if a device is lost or stolen.